As our Icelandair flight descends through the clouds towards Keflavik airport, the rugged cliffs and shoreline of the Reykjanes peninsula begin to emerge from the mist. The sun is just peaking over the far horizon and its warming light is magical and welcoming! The peninsula’s dark rugged lava fields remind me somewhat of landing in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii, although the massive bulks of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa are distinctly absent here. We breeze through immigration and customs and make our way to the Flybus, a comfortable and convenient way to do the 40 minute commute from Keflavik to Reykjavik.
We’re tired after our red-eye flight, but to me it feels familiar and good to be back in Iceland. The last time I made this journey I was traveling with my brother; I’ve shared details of that trip on this blog before (click here to read and see a more detailed discussion of Iceland’s capitol if you’re interested). This time I’m spending a few days in Iceland with my wife, Sylvia, who’s never been before and who will finally have a chance to ride an Icelandic horse.
Iceland is very sparsely populated country, with about two third’s of its 320,000 citizens living in the country’s colorful capitol, Reykjavik. Safe, clean and modern, it sits nestled by the sea, without question the dominating city of Iceland — its political and economic pulse. Reykjavik has become a trendy place for young travelers because of it’s thriving music and nightclub scene, but that really doesn’t interest us. We’re here just to enjoy the city before beginning a short journey around the southwestern part of the island and, of course, finding a perfect place to go horseback riding.
I’ve learned never to nap after a flight — always slide into the local time and go to bed when locals do — it’s my way of dealing with jet lag. So, while groggy, we both look forward to a day of exploring the capitol. After dropping off our bags at our hotel, our first chore is to get a good breakfast and lots of strong coffee, not that difficult in a city whose restaurant choices have really taken off in the past decade. Caffeinated and refueled, we’re rejuvenated and ready for the day.
The landmarks of Reykjavik are still very familiar to me, almost like seeing old friends, or the key features of a favorite hiking trail. The colorful steel and concrete buildings (wood is a scarce commodity here and used sparingly on exteriors) look much the same, although the newly completed Harpa Concert Hall and Convention Center along the Harbor has dramatically altered the character of the waterfront. When I last visited, Harpa was under construction and far from finished; now it proudly faces the city not unlike a gigantic peacock, strutting it’s many faceted and colored windows. A very large facility, the place is open for business and one can only hope that Harpa will generate enough revenue to pay for itself. Iceland is too small a country to have this be a cash sink draining the nation’s Treasury, especially as it is still recovering from it’s economic collapse a few years ago.
While it’s quite cool and windy, the day is sunny and vivid. I really enjoy how walkable the city is — mostly flat and fairly compact. Our stroll takes the remainder of the day and covers the familiar terrain of the waterfront (with a pleasant and warming diversion into the interior of Harpa, where we enjoy the unique views through it’s stained windows as seen in the above photo), a puffin cruise (lots of puffins in the water but rough seas so we can’t stealthily approach and don’t see the little guys very clearly). We stroll through the older heart of the city, enjoy one of the famous sheep hot dogs (truly delicious!) from the small stand near the harbor which Bill Clinton helped make famous, walk along the pond to see the Althingi (Parliament) and Rathaus (City Hall — which has an excellent 3D relief map of the country that ‘s worth a few minutes of your time).
The afternoon ends with a climb uphill to the Hallgrimskirkje, the Nation’s Cathedral, with elevator ride to the top of the bell tower and wonderful city views! It’s clear and bright and the views today are especially good — the brightly colored metal buildings and snow-covered mountains clearly highlighted. It’s a stop everyone visiting Reykjavik should make, especially on when the weather is fair. On your way in or out of the church, you can’t miss the statue of Leif Eiriksson. Be sure you read the inscription on the back, which some people find controversial. The statue is a gift from the US government to commemorate Iceland’s 1000th birthday, and in effect says that the Vikings were the first to discover America (not Columbus).
From the bell-tower of Hallgrimskirkje, it seems that Reykjavik is doing well. There are signs of construction activity and the streets are filled with bikes and pedestrians, as it should be on a spring day. It seems that the worst of the country’s economic collapse is behind it, which pleases me as I’ve grown fond of these hardly people. We wrap up the day with an great meal of roast lamb (one of the best dishes in Iceland) and a Viking beer before returning to our small but nicely appointed room in the Hotel Reykjavik Centrum and crash into a deep night’s sleep. Very tired, but feeling good after a day spent exploring a great city!
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